Surviving the holiday stress

Brigitte over at My Herb Corner is hosting an herbal blog party this month called “No Time for Stress”, and I just couldn’t resist joining in. I admit, my reasons might be slightly selfish – I have been a bit stressed lately with all the hustle and bustle of holiday parties, travel plans, and classes to teach – and in writing this blog I am hoping to remind myself of all the strategies I should be using to cope with the added stress. In other words, I need a great big dose of my own medicine.

It’s just such a conundrum this time of year. The darkness beckons us inwards, begs us to rest and dream as the earth herself is doing, and yet, our social and work lives seem to ask just the opposite. While the sense of festivity and the bringing together of friends and family is a wonderful thing to warm our spirits during the darkest part of the year – I do find myself getting worn thin by resisting that call for rest and introspection.

Of course, the obvious answer to this problem is to seek a balance.  Make time for resting and putting the feet up by the ol’ fire by letting some of the party obligations go, maybe even deciding to spend a bit less on holiday presents this year so you can spend more time with your family and yourself. But I know that is easier said than done, so I am sharing a few tips with you for remaining sane throughout the holiday chaos, if (and only if)  you promise that you will at least try to find some down time. Do you really promise? (I’ll know if you’re crossing your fingers….). Ok, if you promise, then read on:

Tip #1: Have a nice cup of tea

I’m not sure if my grandmother ever actually made me a cup of tea, but for some reason I always imagine her offering me one when I’m in a tizzy. Her voice, tinkly as a bell and worn as an old shoe, pops into my head and says, “Now, now dear. Why not sit down and have a nice cup of tea?”

I’m not sure if she’s coming through from the other world, or if my mind has just chosen her as the most effective messenger, but I always listen when I hear the advice, and it always works its magic. You’ll know that tea drinking is my preferred method of experiencing herbs – you can read pages and pages about it here – but suffice it to say that there is some magic in the process of preparing a steaming cup of fragrant, herb infused liquid. The preparation in and of itself is part of the medicine. It tricks you into slowing down, just a little, and finding a moment to catch up with yourself.

I like to use herbs that are nourishing and strengthening in my daily stress blend, herbs known traditionally as nerve tonics:

Milky Oats: The very same type of oats you put in your breakfast pot, milky oats are just harvested earlier in the season with the groat is still green and exudes a delicious milky sap. Full of B vitamins and minerals that nourish and strengthen the nervous system, great for those who are depleted from chronic stress, anxiety, and over-work.

Skullcap: Skullcap helps to calm the nervous system and quiet the mind – putting a cap all those thoughts flying in and out of the brain. Skullcap, like oats, is best used before, during and after stressful events, because it works by rebuilding and strengthening – rather than having a strong acute action. Good for those who get tension headaches and tight muscles when stressed.

Tulsi: Also known as Holy Basil, tulsi is revered in India. They love it so much that almost every household keeps a plant in their courtyard, lovingly tended and worshiped by the woman of the house.  It reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, modulates blood sugar, calms anxiety and alleviates depression, while also boosting immune function and acting as a strong antioxidant. Whew!  All that, and it also tastes divine.

Lemon Balm: Calming, uplifting, and soothing to the digestive tract, as well as deliciously lemony tasting. Great for anyone who experiences digestive upset when stressed, or for those who feel a little blue this time of year.

Hawthorn leaf and flower: Traditionally known as a heart tonic, hawthorn also supports and soothes the nervous system – working on that mysterious intersection of heart and mind. Energetically, it fortifies the heart and provides a sense of protection and strength during stressful and emotionally trying times. Especially good for those with stress related high blood pressure.

Lavender: Incredibly soothing to the nervous system – helping to reduce anxiety and quiet the mind. Especially helpful for insomnia.

Linden: The delicious smelling June flowers from an ancient and noble tree, the linden flowers are soothing and sedative, helping to promote sleep and quiet an anxious, worried mind. Also good for those whose blood pressure spikes during stressful times.

Tip #2: Adapt with “Adaptogens”

Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help normalize the stress response and enhance resistance to a wide range of stressors on the body. They bring the body back to a place of balance, no matter what the direction of imbalance might be (which is amazing and profound) , while nourishing and enhancing the vitality of the body.

Here are some of my favorites:

Ashwagandha: Adaptogenic, building and calming to the nervous system, a perfect remedy for those who are anxious, have trouble sleeping, and are also weakened and fatigued by chronic stress. Take a teaspoon of the powder in warm milk at bedtime to promote restful sleep.

Eleuthero: Also known as Siberian ginseng, Eleuthero has been long studied by the Russians for its ability to enhance physical and mental endurance and strengthen the immune system. Great for those who tend to get sick when worn down, or for those who get fatigued easily when stressed.

Reishi: Known as the mushroom of immortality, reishi is said in Chinese medicine to, “calm disturbed shen.” Shen roughly translates as spirit – and symptoms of its disturbance include insomnia, heart palpitations, mental agitation, and sadness. Balances the immune system – whether deficient or over-active, protects the liver from damage, and normalizes the cardiovascular system.

Rhodiola: A rosy smelling root that improves memory and enhances alertness, reduces anxiety and symptoms of depression, protects from radiation and improves immunity. Read more about it in my rhodiola post.

Schisandra: Known as the 5-flavored fruit, the bright red berries are something straight out of Harry Potter – tasting first sour, then sweet, and progressing through salty and astringent with a distinctive ending of bitter. Protects the liver (great for all those holiday cocktails), strengthens the immune system, and enhances alertness and concentration while relieving anxiety, heart palpitations and insomnia.

Tip #3: Don’t forget to breathe

I once read that when taking deep breaths, it is nearly impossible physiologically to experience anxiety. Try it for yourself: take a breath, and pull the air all the way into your abdomen – hold it there a moment – and then slowly, slowly exhale the air through your nose. How do you feel?

When we are stressed, we tend to breathe shallowly, which predisposes us to heart palpitations, foggy thinking and fatigue when our blood is not properly oxygenated. Simply remembering to breathe fully can go a long way to remedying these symptoms – and automatically moves our nervous system out of sympathetic fight or flight mode – and into a calm state.

Exercising is also an important part of breathing deeply, oxygenating the blood and helps to diffuse the impact of stress hormones on the body. So while it is all to easy to nix your exercise routine when schedules become hectic and time seems scarce, try to at least get out for 15 – 20 minutes of brisk walking each day. Sacrificing those 15 minutes will enhance your energy, uplift your mood, reduce stress and increase mental concentration – well worth it, I should say.

Tip #4: Nourish your body

While sweet treats and glasses of wine may temporarily give you a lift and ease the stress – they will only worsen the problem in the long run by further depleting and stressing the nervous system. Instead, choose foods that are packed with the nutrients your nervous system and body needs to function optimally.

B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and vitamin C are all important for nervous system and adrenal health, as are omega 3 fatty acids. Complex carbohydrates and high quality proteins support energy levels, and prevent blood sugar dips that further stress your body, cause fatigue, and de-stabilize mood.

To ensure your body is receiving proper nutrition, include these foods in your daily diet:

  • High quality proteins such as cold water fish, pasture raised poultry and eggs, pasture raised meats, and legumes combined with nuts, seeds, or whole grains.
  • Dark leafy greens such as kale, collards, chard, parsley, turnip greens, pok choi and broccoli.
  • B vitamin rich whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, millet, amaranth, barley, brown rice and buckwheat.
  • 5-7 servings of brightly colored fruits and vegetables for antioxidant phytonutrients that protect against the effects of stress.
  • Calcium and magnesium rich foods such as and  sesame, almond, and pumpkin seeds, cultured dairy, and seaweeds.
  • Omega 3 rich foods such as salmon, sardines, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.

And, lastly, don’t forget your promise to make some time for yourself to rest and go inwards, as the season requires. Otherwise, you are only bandaging up the problem rather than healing the root.

May you all have a wonderful, joyful, rejuvenating and relaxing holiday! And while stress is inevitable, may you adapt and move through it with ease and grace.